The wonders of France
France offers an amazing array of wines in every conceivable style and has had a huge influence on winemaking worldwide, writes JOHN WILSON
Wandering around a French trade tasting recently, I found myself once more in awe of French wine. It struck me that the most astonishing thing is not its quality, although they do make great wines, but its sheer variety.
The country offers an amazing array of wines in every conceivable style. I tasted crisp dry Rieslings and luscious Gewürztraminers from Alsace, light rosés from Provence, refined sparkling wines, elegant reds and sherry-like whites from the Jura, and warming reds from the Languedoc. And that was all at one table.
The French “sherry” from the Jura was in fact more like a Manzanilla, as a Spanish importer remarked.
In Jura, producers use Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as in nearby Burgundy, but also three indigenous grapes, Savagnin, Poulsard and Trousseau. Local specialities include Vins Jaune, the wine not dissimilar to sherry, and Vins de Paille, a sweet wine made from grapes dried on straw mats.
They also produce good sparkling wines, dry whites, the occasional rosé, and red wines too. And that is all in one small, unfamiliar region.
France has a varied climate that provides an environment for virtually every kind of wine. It has the right soils, minutely studied and defined by experts and then classified according to quality and style.
It is a crucial part of French culture and the French economy. Many regions would simply fall apart without their vines and the inflow of money they provide annually.
We tend to think of the grand chateaux of Bordeaux when we think of French wine. In fact, most producers are farmers with small plots of land and a modest income. An excess of wine is a problem in many areas, primarily in the Languedoc, but elsewhere too.
French people are drinking less wine each year, partly a result of strict antialcohol laws. The export market is interested primarily in quality wine, but small producers do not always have the ability to sell their wines in a multitude of markets around the world.
At times, reading the press or talking to producers, you get the impression that the whole edifice that is French wine is about to collapse. Yet somehow it continues, adapts and evolves to satisfy the demands of the world market without losing its solid roots in the local cultures and traditions of France.
It can be difficult to learn all the names, appellations and grapes that comprise French wine. But it can also be fascinating and rewarding. We cannot think about France without thinking about wine.